A.O.C. is a frustrating restaurant, one that we primarily visit with out-of-town guests. Its popularity makes it difficult to get a table on short notice during prime hours, and the bar always appears at least two-deep on the many occasions that we have driven by. On top of that, the food can be inconsistent when the dining room is full. Nevertheless, the wine list is solid, the small “Cal-Med” dishes tend to be thoughtful and vibrant, and ultimately, we're always up for a plate of prosciutto and cheese. And in all of our visits dating back to New Year's Eve 2002, we've had several outstanding dishes from A.O.C., including, among many others, seasonal offerings and specials such as the lobster salad, soft-shelled crab, and sheep's milk cheesecake.
So over the past few years, our occasional visits by ourselves have been spontaneous -- and on the early side, in order to avoid the crowds and an overly taxed kitchen. Last Thursday, after a late afternoon appointment in Century City in which we suffered the indignity of sharing an elevator with Michael Bolton of all people (whom Marisa had to recognize), and spared by geography from another Ashkenazi-driven Rosh Hashana assault on my gustatory sensibilities, we sidled up to the wine bar at A.O.C. for an early dinner.
We began with a regular item on the A.O.C. menu, the roasted dates with parmesan wrapped in bacon, a stalwart dish for us in our date-obsessed household. While delicious as usual, the roasted dates betrayed Suzanne Goin’s “farmer’s market” philosophy to such a degree that she rendered the cover of her cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques pure puffery. The artful cover has a photograph of a cluster of fresh yellow barhi dates, a paradigmatic farmer’s market item, since they are available for a few weeks toward the end of summer (i.e., now). Last week, the barhi dates at the Bautista family’s date stand at the Hollywood Market were at their finest: the golden clusters were fresh and plump, just like on the cookbook’s cover, but lush with a sweetness that no photo can convey.
So at the height of barhi season and with the promise of the cookbook cover and Goin’s fancy James Beard award, what does A.O.C. have to offer? Niente. Zero. Just the standard roasted date with bacon and cheese that they always have (and we always order). There would be no thoughtfulness on display at this assembly line. It’s a good thing Yom Kippur is around the corner, because deception and complacency warrant serious atonement.
We also had the fried tetilla, a soft Galician cow’s milk cheese and, like the dates, another standard appetizer for us. The tetilla is served thinly and in portions not much larger than a silver dollar along with a smidgen of quince paste and the spicy romesco sauce However, this time, the fried tetilla was a greasy mess. While it looked crispy and brown, the nasty taste reminded me of the fried mozzarella sticks I used to get in my fifth grade bowling league.
The next disappointment was a salad of eggplant, essentially baba ghanoush, served on a piece of thick toast and accompanied by a sizable cube of smoked ricotta, roasted peppers, and soppressata. The dish exemplified incoherence as the four ingredients bore no ascertainable relationship to one another, and I was uncertain about whether I should put any of the accompanying items on top of the baba ghanoush. I can speculate that there are two reasons why these ingredients were served: there is no way to justify the $11.00 price tag on a miserly portion of otherwise unaccompanied baba, and the kitchen knew it was bland and had to compensate. It would be unthinkable for Marouch to serve its brilliant smoky version with all of this clutter. Even the eggplant bhartha at nearby Electric Karma is better -- and that's just when it's delivered.
The best dish of the meal was the salad of corn and shrimp with green harissa and lime for $12. The lime and green harissa were a great complement to the market fresh corn, and the type of dish I come to A.O.C. to eat. But the portion was not large and the shrimp were not especially flavorful. The corn would have been fine sans shrimp, but then $12 for a small bowl of corn would not be appealing to diners. But neither is bland shrimp and corn for $12, which felt like petty larceny.
The menu advertised a tantalizing sounding market fish with "yellow tomato, pancetta, and opal basil." What arrived was a downright Dali-esque serving of sea bass over two slices of red tomatoes, a salsa of small Gerberesque roasted stone fruit, and flavorless pancetta resembling red dental tape, all under a glop of creamy sauce that Marisa surmised was yogurt-based. Like the baba before it, the dish was a mess and I was unsure how the ingredients corresponded to one another. The kitchen did prove that bass can be overcooked.
The final dish was a small bowl of clams with garlic and amontillado sherry. For $15, I expected an outsized portion, but there were less than a dozen clams. The broth was inert and the garlic undetectable. The sheep's milk cheesecake was very good, and a whole other animal from the standard "New York" cheesecake that my arteries and tongue dread. If it weren’t for the cake and the outstanding braised veal cheeks with risotto carbonara that I had at Lucques a month ago, I’d write off the whole Goin franchise. I am still a Frida Kahlo fan, though.